HOUSTON GETS HIGH MARKS for the diversity of its population, but what about ecologically speaking? The region’s popular image as either suburbia run amok or a refinery-crowded dystopia can be misleading when it comes to the environmental riches that remain, explains Jaime González, the program director of Houston Healthy Cities at The Nature Conservancy’s Houston office.
“I think there are a lot of ways to go to inform people how exceptional our nature is, and what’s left to be saved,” he says, “because although we have lost a lot, there’s still an exceptional amount of stuff that can and should be saved.”
Just how much might surprise a lot of people. González enjoys touting the variety of species commonly found in the area: “We have everything—from bald eagles to bottlenose dolphins,” he says. Additionally, this particular section of the Texas Gulf Coast hosts a robust frog community and “thousands of insects,” while the annual Christmas bird count at the Conservancy’s preserve in Matagorda County has shown that this region boasts more than 200 species, making it one of the most diverse spots for bird populations in the nation, González adds.
But don’t just take his word for it, go see for yourself. Timed precisely to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, his April 22 lecture* at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, “Citizen Science: Save Houston’s Biodiversity With Your Phone,” will serve as the official kickoff for this year’s City Nature Challenge**, an annual event in which teams compete to document and identify as many different species from their specific areas as possible. Last year Houston came in first in the nation and third globally in the competition to spot the most species. Thus the always-competitive Bayou City has a lot riding on this year, explains González, who expects the number of participating cities to grow from 150 last year to more like 250.
González says even people who “can’t tell a cardinal from a blue jay” are welcome to take part. All participants’ discoveries can be logged and cross-checked with a handy smartphone app called iNaturalist. (Find details on the Houston City Nature Challenge Facebook page.) The corresponding website, iNaturalist.org, is easy to search; the results for both Harris and Galveston counties are truly astonishing, although González points out that it really makes sense.
“We have all of these super-wonderful habitats coming together in one place,” González says. “And we’re warm and wet.”
Initiatives like the City Environmental Challenge, González hopes, will encourage citizens to practice responsible environmental stewardship—while tapping into Houston’s ever-present need to assert bragging rights whenever it can.
Besides the mental-health benefits of communing with nature, he explains, “There’s kind of a pride of place once people here learn that their nature is not less than other places, but actually very stellar.
“I think Houstonians are a very proud people, and rightfully so,” González adds. “I think that we like to be No. 1, and we like to beat Dallas.”
Lecture: 6:30 p.m. Apr 22. $16. Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Dr. 713-639-4629. hmns.org
*Due to Coronavirus concerns, this event might get cancelled. Check online before you go.
**In light of the current pandemic, this event is no longer a competition. Learn more here.